Rob Stone went outside the box and even off the continent to record “Trio In Tokyo,” released today on Blue Heart Records.
Japan has a deep appreciation for Chicago-styled blues, and Stone, a harmonica player and singer, spent 20 years honing his skills in the Windy City. He’s toured Japan annually since 2007 and at the suggestion of mentor “Big Jay” McNeely, recorded a unique album with a couple of renowned Japanese musicians.
A blues trio is nothing new, however this ensemble is rare because it doesn’t include guitar or drums. Elena Kato plays piano and Hiroshi Eguchi plays upright bass. The style is in a vintage R&B style, reminiscent of Roy Brown and Johnny Otis.
“I like playing stripped-down music,” Stone told Tahoe Onstage. “It’s kind of scary because it’s all exposed. It’s exciting yet feels vulnerable.”
Included on the 10-song album are standards such as “Come Back Baby,” “Jack You’re Dead,” “Poison Ivy” and “What Am I Living For?”
Eguchi moved to Chicago at the age of 18 and stayed there for more than a decade before moving back to Yokohama, Japan. Stone noted the bass player speaks English with a Chicago accent. Eguchi had helped arrange and perform tours for Stone since 2007, and he astutely introduced him to Kato, who loves American music so much she lived in New Orleans for two years.
“I went to Bourbon Street every night and people thought it was weird, a Japanese woman coming out on the street every night,” Kato told Tahoe Onstage through an interpreter. “But once they knew I was a pianist, the musicians started including me in their sessions.
“James Booker was my first influence. He is different and has very big hands and his songs aren’t easy to play. I also love Art Tatum.”
Kato leads the Elena Kato Band, playing American R&B with Japanese lyrics.
“When I play piano alone, what comes out naturally is 1950s music,” she said.
When Eguchi introduced Stone to Kato, the singer asked her to play “Sloppy Drunk,” a blues standard first released in 1930.
“She nailed it,” Stone said. “Elena and Hiroshi have been playing together for some time. There is a lot of sound coming out of that bass and piano. I wanted to do more music like that and I wanted to make it with them because it straddles the line. It has that Louis Jordan feels and some of it has more of a soul kind of feel.”
They held a session in Tokyo, recording “Jack You’re Dead” and “Got To Get You Off My Mind,” previously recorded by soul singer Solomon Burke with a full orchestra.
“The songs had a relaxed, stripped-down vibe about them that I got excited about,” Stone said. “I shared them with Big Jay McNeely, who has been to Japan a million times. He suggested I make a whole record like that.”
Such a notion from McNeely is not farfetched, considering he was discovered by and recorded with Johnny Otis in the late 1940s. He was dubbed “King of the Honkers,” for his saxophone style popularized in the 1950s.
Playing without a guitarist was unusual for Stone, but playing without a drummer was even more out of his comfort zone.
“I always lock in with the drummer,” Stone said. “I basically learned how to play with Sam Lay. Little Walter is my No. 1 harmonica hero and he’s always playing off the drums and that’s where a lot of the interplays. It’s so built into my style, but it was fun to take that away, too.”
Stone befriended McNeely when he headed out West.
“When I first moved to L.A., it was tricky to find guys who could do Chicago style,” Stone said. “I connected with him and we played a show together. We just clicked. I’ve worked with a lot of older musicians and I know how to support them both onstage and off. I value being around them and learning from them. So for the next few years Big Jay and I played together constantly. I feel very lucky.”
McNeely died in 2018 before he and Stone had a chance to record McNeely’s song “There Is Something On Your Mind.” However, it is one of the tunes on “Trio In Tokyo,” with Stone mimicking McNeely’s bubbling vocal cadence during the fading outro.
“I watch older players relax and do their thing and I’m envious. That’s where my head is now. I try to deliver with energy but also in a relaxed manner that feels really natural.”
The rapport Kato and Eguchi have with Stone feels natural as well. The Japanese players have experience supporting touring Americans. The two were together backing Chicago’s Carlos Johnson.
“Hiroshi also played with Sugar Blue and Mavis Staples,” Stone said. “He’s great. He’s got a good feel and when I first started going over there in 2007, he connected me with great musicians and did shows for a number of years.”
Eguchi plays bass in Kato’s band.
“I trust his technique,” she said. “He listens to music as a whole and he’s knowledgeable in other sounds beside bass. He’s also an expert in music making and arranging. He was helpful in connecting Rob with us in the language barrier and cultural differences.”
Kato said Chicago blues is popular in Japan because of her country’s affection for passionate guitar players. But “Trio In Tokyo,” of course, has no guitar.
“I love it,” she said. “We came up with the arrangements together. It wasn’t challenging because the piano player always thinks about other instruments anyway, such as by making the sound of brass by making the tone of it.”
The album concludes with its most powerful song, “Goodnight Irene,” Lead Belly’s 1939 classic. It is performed with just piano and Stone’s voice.
“That’s a real Elena showcase,” Stone said. “I wanted it to feel like a big grand piano out onstage at the Grand Ole Opry and the house is empty.”
“I love gospel,” Kato said. “I pictured the story and played it before we recorded the song but the scene really came upon me at the recording. Both Rob and I felt like the power came down to us.”
Someday, hopefully soon, the trio will reunite on the bandstand.
“I am so ready, but I am not in a position to be able to quarantine for two weeks,” Stone said. “I am chomping at the bit. The fans are great there. I’ve had a longtime love affair with Japan and I want to get it going again.”
-Mei Hiyane Wehan interpreted the interview with Elena Kato.
- ‘Trio In Tokyo’
- Rob Stone, harmonica and vocals; Elena Kato, piano; Hiroshi Eguichi, bass
- Label: Blue Heart Records, a division of Nola Blue, Inc.
- Release: May 21, 2021
- Favorite tracks: ‘There Is Something On Your Mind,’ ‘Goodnight Irene’